(Bloomberg) -- It was not long ago Southeast Asia saw Australia’s foreign policy as being too closely hitched to that of the US. But a gathering of regional leaders in Melbourne this week shows how Canberra wants to carve its own path.

The leaders of every Association of Southeast Asian Nations member, bar Myanmar, will be in Australia for a three-day summit beginning Monday to commemorate 50 years of relations between Australia and the regional bloc.

The meeting follows a concerted effort by Australia’s center-left Labor government to boost ties with Asean. Prior to that, Australia was largely seen by the mostly non-aligned region as following Washington’s lead as relations with Beijing deteriorated. And while Canberra has heeded US calls to adopt a more proactive approach in Southeast Asia, it has also begun to show that Australia intends to become a reliable partner in its own right.

Rahman Yaacob, a research fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, echoed those sentiments.

“One of the Philippines’ advisers actually told me, ‘Australia don’t have a foreign policy. It’s the foreign policy of the US’,” he said. “But under the new government, there’s a change of perspective.”

Under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Australia has sought to reposition itself as a middle power exerting influence in Southeast Asia and the Indo Pacific, as China’s rise scrambles the region’s geopolitics. Albanese said in a speech in Singapore last year that “when Australia looks north, we don’t see a void for others to impose their will.”

That rhetoric has been backed by action. Albanese visited Vietnam in early 2023, as the countries look to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, before heading to the Philippines later in the year for the first visit by a sitting Australian prime minister in two decades.

Shortly before the start of the summit in Melbourne, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was invited to address Australia’s parliament, just the fourth Southeast Asian leader to be given that honor. 

During his visit, Australia and the Philippines signed a pact on maritime cooperation, a key issue for a nation that’s constantly jostling with China over territorial rights in the South China Sea.

Australian Foreign Minister Wong, speaking at the opening of the summit, announced a A$64 million ($42 million) investment in maritime security across Southeast Asia, noting the region relies on “open sea lanes.”

“What happens in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait, in the Mekong subregion, across the Indo-Pacific, affects us all,” she said.

Any deals that may be reached during the Asean-Australia summit are expected to be modest, but observers say the gathering will advance already growing ties across a range of sectors from intelligence sharing to trade and maritime cooperation.

The shift in Australia’s foreign policy comes amid growing strategic uncertainty in the region, as a result of China’s rapid military expansion and questions over the future of US engagement under a potential return of President Donald Trump.

Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said improving relations with Australia was also something of a “hedge” for Southeast Asian nations.

“For America, if the presidential election takes an untoward turn there will be new uncertainty, but Australia is there,” he said.

While Australia has made strategic gains in the region, there’s still work to be done. In a survey last year asking Southeast Asians which country Asean should seek to hedge against the uncertainties of the US-China rivalry, just 9.3% identified Australia. That’s compared to 42.9% for the European Union and 26.6% for Japan.

An area of contention contention between Australia and Southeast Asia has been blunted, according to Huong Le Thu, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Crisis Group.

Indonesia and Malaysia in particular were sharply critical of the Aukus nuclear submarine agreement between Australia, the UK and US shortly after it was announced in September 2021. They were concerned over the potential threat from increased militarization and possible nuclear proliferation in the region.

But Huong said strong communication from Australia had mitigated concerns over the fleet of nuclear powered submarines that are likely to be deployed next decade.

“Canberra has taken the regional reactions seriously and have addressed and communicated clearly since,” she said.

(Adds Australian foreign minister’s comment. An earlier version of this story was corrected.)

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